To use recent vernacular, I can say that Al Sharpton is not a proper negro. But he is a very smart negro. Tyler Perry is also not a proper negro, just a very rich negro. I personally don't consider myself to be as smart as Sharpton and I know I'm not as rich as Perry. Also, judging from how few friends I have in academia, I'm starting to think that I'm not even all that proper.
So, my improper thinking kicked in when I heard Rev. Al refer to Tyler Perry critics as "proper negroes." Tyler has been hit with the kind of haterology only reserved for a black man who was able to stealthily rise to become the highest paid man in all of Hollywood. Not the highest paid black man... he is the highest paid man, period. Since then, Perry critics have come out in full force, finding creative ways to build their fame by attacking him at every turn. A great example is the commentator Touré, who referred to Tyler Perry films as "cinematic malt liquor for the masses."
As they say in China, "The fattest pig always gets slaughtered," so I'm sure Perry understands that you can't be the king of the mountain without having a few enemies. Personally, I didn't like Touré's remarks, not because I didn't understand where he was coming from, but because I felt his pathetic soundbite represented the words of a man who never made it very far in Hollywood. Rather than dig through Perry films to try to understand them, he would rather sit on the side of the road and throw rocks. But jeering from the stands is all you can do when no one invites you into the game.
On the flip of it all, Sharpton classifying all Perry critics to be "proper negroes" is nearly as problematic as Toure's malt liquor comment. Perry isn't just being criticized by "proper negroes," he's being critiqued by conscientious negroes. Even Perry himself (I've only spoken to him once, for roughly 15 minutes, to try to get an understanding of his rationale) has admitted that some of his more problematic characters are an entertainment sacrifice that he makes in order to reach young adults on issues such as depression, abuse, and addiction. While this doesn't clear Perry of his responsibility, it does say that he might be sacrificing the battle in order to win the war.
Idris Elba, who starred in one of Perry's films (Daddy's Little Girls), has himself said that while he likes working with Perry, he chooses not to participate in that which he considers to be buffoonery. Elba's British accent might make him sound like a proper negro, but it would be unfair to write off his balanced critique as mere jealousy or disconnected thinking. There are plenty of good, decent, down-to-earth African Americans who can't watch Madea on film without throwing up in their own lap. That's OK, because not every black movie is a fit for every black person -- that's where the term "target audience" comes from.
So, the bottom line is that Rev. Al probably should have found a more careful way to describe his disappointment toward Tyler Perry's critics. Some of them have gone over the top, which Perry doesn't deserve. But class warfare is not the solution either. I remember Sharpton defining his dispute with Cornel West over Obama to imply that he doesn't relate to "black scholars", which unnecessarily extrapolates the fight to be about more than just two people. Sharpton, one of the smartest people I know (he's actually sharper than most of the PhDs I've encountered), is wise enough to realize what he's doing, and I'd be surprised if he himself doesn't have an issue or two with some of what he sees in Perry flicks.
So, those who have a problem with Tyler Perry's films have a right to express their concern without being unfairly labeled. But I encourage Perry critics to take a deeper look at the movies to realize that they are not all the same, and that he might have a secondary agenda. Tyler Perry is not a traitor to his race, and the fact that he is so sensitive to the criticism implies that he does care about his people. If these films were coming from "Herman Cain Productions," we would all be "talking to the hand" right now.
All the while, I plan to miss the next Madea flick, and I certainly hope this doesn't make me into a "proper negro." Instead, perhaps we should realize that being black doesn't mean we all share the same brain, and we all have the right to disagree.
Follow Dr. Boyce Watkins on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrBoyceWatkins1